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Essential Elements: Q&A with Earth, Wind & Fire

Earth, Wind & Fire has shared the music of light for over 40 years now. The warmth in their sound has always been apparent to a legion of followers who have rocked with the band since its formation.

If you’ve ever been to one of their concerts, the permeation of love and celebration is palpable. Strangers embrace at an Earth, Wind & Fire concert. Ask any wild child of the 70s about the flavor of the musical menu and Earth, Wind & Fire will inevitably enter the conversation.

With a new CD entitled “Now, Then & Forever” (out Sept. 10)  the group has not lost the fire. JETmag.com speaks with the legendary group’s current leader, and longtime member, Phillip Bailey about their latest effort, how they formed, lessons learned from the music industry and the deeper message behind two classic hits.

JET: Take us back to that place in Chicago in the ’60s at the beginning of the formation of the band. How did the band start? 

Bailey: Verdine and Maurice White are brothers. They both lived in Chicago. I was in Denver, Colorado. The forming of the group took place in Chicago. Maurice White was a drummer with Chess Records and also a drummer for Ramsey Lewis, the jazz musician. Maurice came up with the idea to form a band called Earth, Wind & Fire. Maurice had a very clear vision. Maurice initially started the group with some musicians in Chicago, they did a record called Earth, Wind & Fire and moved to Los Angeles. I knew the band through a mutual friend. Later, they asked me to join the band and Ralph Johnson also auditioned in Los Angeles. That’s how the group was established.

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JET: Your new album sounds like Earth, Wind & Fire never took a break, let alone eight years, from recording. Each song feels just as fresh and vibrant as the work we’ve enjoyed in the past. After 44 years in a business that has gone through so many unpredictable changes, how are you still able to make quality music?

Bailey: Thank you for the kind words! Rediscovering Earth, Wind & Fire was very intentional. Next year will mark the 20th year of Earth, Wind & Fire without Maurice. So this will be our first record we’ve done since back in the day where we’ve received so much praise for our current music. Larry Dunn was a big part of us refining our core essentials.  Neal Pogue, who worked with Outkast, was a big contributor to Now, Then & Forever. We were able to really go into the necessary essentials of who Earth, Wind & Fire is historically and musically.

JET: You guys survived so many historical moments in Black history. When the band was rocking through the 70s, did you ever think we would have an African American President?

Bailey: No.  Not in my lifetime. When Obama became President it was a divine epiphany. Earth, Wind & Fire was one of the first bands personally asked to perform for President Obama.  To be in his presence was an honor. We’ve played three times for him since the first performance.  We’ve had a fantastic ride. [Laughs] We’ve played for Nobel Peace Prize winners, kings and other dignitaries in different countries. Our music has made a way for us to receive greatness in our careers. Little did we know, what started as a passion of just loving sound and song, would open so many doors for us. It’s a blessing.

JET: I can honestly say all of the songs on Now, Then & Forever are treasure pieces. Explain the message behind the tune, Sign On.

Bailey: Sign-On is very timely, especially with the Travon Martin case and other harsh issues taking place in the world.  In the face of what we encounter every day, we have choices. We can take the high road or the low road in life. We can gather or scatter. Earth, Wind & Fire has always been about gathering and not scattering. That’s what the song Sign-On is about.

JET: What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned as it relates to the music business?

Bailey: You have to have more than music to actually survive fame. It takes great faith. You also have to have people that love you for who are and are down with you, no matter what. If you buy into the superficiality of the entertainment industry, you’re done! Because one day people love you, the next day you’re a goner. One day you receive great reviews and the next day, you get no reviews at all. If you get really caught up, to the extent that’s where you derive your identity, you’re in trouble!

JET: Most songs carry an origin story? What was behind the creation of Devotion and Reasons?

Bailey: Devotion is a song myself and Maurice wrote. Devotion really came out of my Catholic background as a kid. Maurice and myself had conversations about spirituality while on the road, so we wrote the song together as a result of those conversations. Reasons was born out of life experiences with women.

Quassan Castro is a news and entertainment journalist. Follow him on Twitter @Quassan.

To win a signed copy of the Now, Then and Forever album, click here.